Ten months before caucuses, Iowa in campaign mode
COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA
The Iowa caucuses are 10 months away, but the hall where Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was to speak on a recent Friday afternoon here in Council Bluffs had standing room only – and this in a town considered a Republican stronghold.Skip to next paragraph
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"They're really putting it to us early, but there's turnout," says local resident O.D. McGee, who says he supported Mr. Edwards in 2004 but plans to hear all the candidates before he makes up his mind this time: "How else do you know if you don't listen to them all?"
Iowa has long celebrated its role as "first of the first" in the presidential nominating season – a status that gives Iowans an opportunity to mingle with all the candidates, peppering them with questions in close settings such as neighbors' living rooms and local coffee shops. This year's early arrival of the presidential flock may have some Iowans bemoaning a longer-than-ever campaign season, but many, like Mr. McGee, are gamely shouldering what they see as their civic duty of candidate sorting.
The field of hopefuls is big in '08, so Iowans may actually need the extra time to vet everyone. Moreover, come January, their caucus votes, are expected to hold even more sway over the nomination process than usual. With the presidential primary calendar becoming front-loaded with big states like California, candidates who don't perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire will have a harder time catching up to the early front-runners.
"If you don't do well in Iowa, it will be hard to sustain your campaign much farther. For almost every candidate, Iowa will be make or break," says Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "We're seeing a lot of activity from the candidates and a surprising amount of attention from potential caucus-goers.
Last week, for instance, when Edwards spoke on Iowa's east and west borders, the state also had visits from Democrats Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
Other weeks have seen similarly crowded fields from Republican hopefuls. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has visited the state 17 times since the last presidential election, according to the website IowaPolitics.com, and Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of Health and Human Services has been here at least 14 times.
In many cases, the crowds – especially for events with bigger names like Senator Clinton, Sen. John McCain, and Senator Obama – have been much larger than Iowa is used to. Around 6,000 came to an Iowa State University stadium last month to hear Obama speak.
Still, to win, even the biggest stars are eventually going to have to appear in people's homes along with ballrooms and hotels, say most Iowa observers, if for nothing more than the PR value of showing they don't mind doing so.
"We're known for retail politics," explains Jean Hartwell, a member of the state's Democratic Central Committee attending the Edwards event. "You have to come and press the flesh."